Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script Magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
Every screenwriting career begins with a first script – with that first time someone who dreams of telling a story on the big screen sits down and puts pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to construct a blueprint for the (hoped for) movie to be. A lot of heart and soul (and blood, sweat, and tears) go into these initial efforts. Despite all of this emotional and physical investment, however, most first scripts aren’t very good.
Well, in order to become effective screenwriters, there are a number of skills that aspiring scribes must master:
- Plot construction
- Character creation and development
- Crafting effective dialogue
- Writing cinematically
- Proper screenplay formatting and proper use of screenwriting terminology
- Develop your own unique “creative” voice.
There are many modes of screenwriting education out there, but no matter how many books you read or classes you take, in the end, the only way you’re really going to develop these skills is by doing.
However, as the old saying goes, you have to learn to walk before you learn to run.
Many first timers come to screenwriting with great ambition. Some desire to write sprawling epics, grand period pieces, or adventures set on faraway planets or in densely- imagined fantasy lands. Others want to go small and craft intense dramas or mordant comedies based on their own life experiences or personal obsessions. Many frequently seek to reinvent the art of storytelling by presenting their narratives in highly unconventional, experimental, or “artistic” ways.
I’ve read a great many of these ambitious first scripts and, as much as I admire the creative zeal of these fledgling scribes, the truth is that most of these scripts fail –often spectacularly -- because these young writers have not yet developed skills to match their aspirations.
Epics are hard to write because they require so much more of everything than “normal” scripts – more scope, more plot, more characters, more action, and so on. Science fiction, fantasy, and period scripts are difficult to craft because they require the author to not just tell a story, but also to successfully create and imagine an entirely new and unfamiliar world for that story to take place in. “Personal” scripts are a challenge to create because it far more difficult than most people imagine to find the drama in the often non-dramatic events of everyday existence. “Artistic” and “Experimental” scripts are risky because it’s only one small misstep from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Writing these types of scripts is the screenwriting equivalent of running, so for your seminal endeavor, my advice is to hold off tackling overly-ambitious material and instead start off simply by:
- Telling a genre story.
- Genre stories (thrillers, romcoms, mysteries, buddy comedies and so on) tend to employ a standardized narrative structure and contain a number of mandatory plot elements. Working with these predetermined building blocks gives you a chance to get the hang of plot construction and story development without having the burden of having to come up with everything from scratch.
- The scope of most genre pictures is relatively modest, which allows you to build your skills working with a few characters telling a relatively simple story without having to juggle multiple plotlines and a cast of thousands.
- Genre tales usually employ specific stock characters with specific stock arcs. Working with these pre-established personas will teach you how characters function practically in a screen story and how to effectively integrate character arcs and transformations into a dramatic narrative.
- Genre pieces can often be formulaic. To prevent your script from feeling stale you will need to put fresh spins on the stock characters and narrative tropes. Doing this will help you to begin to develop your own unique writer’s voice.
- Setting your story in the here and now.
- All screen stories require what is currently known as “world building” – the coherent development and clear presentation to the audience of the time, place, and reality in which a story takes place – so this is a skill every writer of every type of screen story needs to develop. However, because they take place in a settings so far from and so different from our own present day reality, period and fantasy films require writers to have a much higher level of world-building ability than most fledgling writers possess. Setting your story in the present day allows you to work within a reality that you and your audience are already familiar with and therefore it is much easier to determine if your world-building efforts have been successful or not. Once you have gotten the hang of setting the stage in a familiar environment, you can begin constructing more ambitious milieus for future stories.
- Setting a story in the here and now will also give you the opportunity to hone your dialogue writing skills. Crafting effective dialogue is not easy. There are so many tasks dialogue needs to accomplish – it needs to make your narrative and dramatic points, it needs to deliver exposition without sounding like an info dump, and it must sound like the way people actually talk. These are hard enough things to achieve without also having to wrestle with the stylized (and sometimes wholly invented) language that period and fantasy films often require. Such things can come later, after you have the basics under control.
- Telling a linear tale.
- Modern screenwriters love non linear narratives – scripts filled with flashbacks, flashforwards, asides, fragmented plot progressions rather than chronological ones, and so on. But when first timers attempt to write scripts like this, they are rarely successful. Why? Because, successful non-linear storytelling requires the mastery of two completely different skill sets.
- The first are the skills needed to construct a solid linear narrative because, no matter how convoluted its final form, at the core all dramatic storytelling is linear – dramatic stories all begin with an inciting incident and build inexorably to a first act plot twist, a second act reversal, and an inevitable climax.
- The second are the skills required to take that linear narrative and artfully shatter it in ways that allow the script to reap the benefits of mosaic storytelling and yet still make sense.
- Most newbies attempt the later without first mastering the former and the result is usually an incoherent mess. Focusing on telling a straightforward story in your first script will allow you to build up solidify your ability to craft a clear and proper narrative before you turn your attention to pretzel-making.
- Telling a regular story in a regular way.
- Don’t try to reinvent cinema. Don’t direct (or production design or costume design or edit or score) on paper. Don’t use a lot of narrative gimmicks. Don’t be weird or obscure or elliptical solely for the sake of being weird or obscure or elliptical. Don’t invent a whole lot of new screenwriting terminology or screenplay formats. At least not in your first script. Instead, just tell your story. And tell it well. Using traditional screenwriting terminology and screenplay formatting. That is a big enough challenge for the first time out. There will be plenty of time to play around and get clever and cutesy later, after you know what you are doing. Remember that other old saying: you’ve got to learn the rules before you can break them. If you break them before you learn them, all you will end up with is a big pile of rule-breaking meh.
- Telling your story cinematically.
- Because movies are a visual/audio medium, there are only three core cinematic storytelling elements: action, imagery, and dialogue. You must learn tell a screen story using only these three things, because if the audience can’t see something happen on screen or hear it coming out of the theater’s speakers, they will not get it. Young writers often expend a lot of time and energy describing their characters’ inner thoughts or feelings in the texts of their screenplays. All that time and energy is wasted, because – unless they hand out copies of the script to every member of the audience – those thoughts and feelings will never get across. Use your first script to wean yourself from this very bad habit and focus exclusively on pictures, action, and talking.
- Screenplays are not novels, so don’t put a lot of effort into developing a “literary” prose style for your action lines and stage directions. Instead, focus on writing simple, sharp, and precise descriptions for your settings and action that will allow prospective buyers and talent to “see” the movie rather than read it.
- Make your script active. Movies move – they should be full of things happening and people doing things. If you want to write about people sitting around and doing nothing but talk, then you should write plays rather than screenplays.
Of course you’re not going to develop all of your screenwriting skills to optimum levels by writing just one screenplay. As with all skill development, it’s a process – the more scripts you write, the better you will get. If you start simply and give yourself the time to develop a solid set of foundational skills, then you will eventually be able to give full reign to all of your creative ambitions.
Copyright © 2015 by Ray Morton
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